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Last year, this picture (without the writing) went viral. The viral post seems to makes its rounds from time to time and every so often, someone tells me they saw my picture. It started when I was in Bagan for an 8 day trip with my friend Ashin Pannyagavesaka. We did a slow and thorough excursion and walked a good chunk of Bagan when rides were not provided. We were happy. I liked to roam about and my Bhante friend liked to take pictures.. often many candid pictures were taken of me too. We hit just about every major and medium sized pagoda. As we would enter each pagoda, a routine would settle in. I would walk in the compound and the vendors would try to get me to buy something. I learned the phrase, “Paisan ma khainboo” which means “I don’t deal with money (because it is bad).” I would say that and the vendors would respectfully stop their sales pitches to me, often with hands in prayer position (anjali). Going ahead of my friend, and into the pagodas, my friend would be asked many questions about me by the vendors. “Who is he, what country, how many years as a monk?”
The routine would follow in just about every pagoda that had vendors outside. Since we went to almost every pagoda, almost every vendor knew who I was due to uniqueness. It wasn’t just because I was American or had some seniority. It was because I did not use money, which is a very basic rule neglected by the vast majority of monks. It is so rarely practiced that most people forget that it is a rule and enjoy giving unallowable money to monks, or in the case in Bagan, trying to get money from monks. That is how common or bad it is. They wanted money from me despite the robes which The Buddha wished to represent a penniless monk.
So on the last day of our trip, I went off completely on my own with my bowl and explored the pagodas and roads that were less traveled. I found an empty isolated pagoda that was clean, yet nearly inside a village and meditated there. Then I walked further to Nagayone pagoda which was my destination. I meditated there and then when it was time for lunch, I went outside with my bowl. I asked the vendors where the local village was and was pointed further down the road. it was 10:30 and I arrived to the village at 10:45 with my bowl. No money, no food and my last chance to eat for the whole day was going to end at Noon.
I took a right-hand turn into the village and refused money from the first donor. I opened my bowl cover to let her know why I was there. The lady looked inside my bowl and freaked out. No rice, no nothin’ and not much time left for a monk to eat. She started yelling “soon soon” (rice rice) to the residents of the street. Then another started to yell, “hin hin” (curry curry) when they realized I had little or no curry for the rice. The village road scrambled to get me a meal and I was out within 10 minutes. The meal was actually more complete than usual since the village road cooperated all at once to get what I needed. I had a nice balance of rice, curry, cake and fruit. I even had a can of Sprite too. Often it is a guessing game, or simply “rice for merit.” Sometimes, rice and biscuits is all you get, and that is all you eat. When that happens, it is a time of gratitude and contemplation that one is a monk and not royalty. I walked back to the pagoda grounds to eat my lunch in a nice quiet setting. A vendor gave me a small grass mat to sit on and I started my meal. During the middle of the meal, a person asked me if he could take my picture. It was nothing new to me and I agreed.
This was that picture. When he posted to Facebook, all of the vendors and villages seemed to know who I was. They gave it likes and made comments and it had momentum to go viral. I found out a week later what happened. Ven. Pannyagavesaka asked me, “How many ‘likes’ do you think is needed for something to be classed as viral?” “I don’t know, 5000 likes?” I said. Then he showed me this picture that was posted and had 42,000 likes and 700 comments. It is probably more now. His granddaughter in Yangon who knew me sent it to him.
A few months ago, this picture was cleaned up a little and some text was added. I think it went viral again, although I would not know since I do not read Myanmar posts. I do not normally scroll down the Facebook feed and just take a peek at the first post. I use Facebook mostly to manage my own posts, mostly from this blog.
About a week ago, my friend sent me this post that was floating around again. It says (in Myanmar writing) that I am 18 vassa (years as a monk). I was only nine years at the time of the picture, but since I ordained twice which reset my seniority, some how 2 x 9 years seemed to appear through Chinese Whispers rather than 9+6 years which is more accurate.
Again, on Sunday, I was eating my food that I collected from the village. I eat alone in the dining hall before the other students at ITBMU take their food because I want to only eat from what I collected. On Sundays, there are two donors who speak English and donate eggs to all the monks every weekend. Although I do not accept their eggs, I let them wash my bowl and cut my fruit if I have any. They are very eager to help. So on this past Sunday, the husband says to me, “I saw your picture on Facebook. So you were in Bagan?” I replied and said, “Yes there was a viral post of me in Bagan with my bowl while I was eating.” I actually had my hand in my bowl while I was talking to him and was in the same pose. I said, “It sort of looks like I am right now huh.” and I give him the same look that was in the picture. He agreed. That was the pose.
It was sort of funny, because I understood that the viral picture had not captured a moment in time, but rather, it captured who I was. I was habitually doing what I love to do. Collect my food, sit on the floor and eat from my bowl. There I was again, with my bowl, eating my food and talking about a picture that showed the same thing. A smile came to my face at that realization. I am a monk, but there is still a lot of Lay person still inside me. However, this part seemed to shine through to the inner core that I am now today.